Gallery of Germanic Languages: A Look at Old Norse
Old Norse refers to the dialects of Old Germanic that made up the North Germanic branch—i.e., the languages of Scandinavia. (Do you remember what the two other branches are? East Germanic includes the speech of the Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, and other smaller tribes. West Germanic includes everything else: Old English, Old Saxon, Old Low Franconian, Old High German, Old Frisian, as well as the mostly undocumented languages of the Lombards and others.)
Strictly speaking, the North Germanic languages are collectively called Old Scandinavian. In this usage, "Old Norse" refers just to the Western dialect—that of Norway and places west, such as Scotland, Dublin, and Iceland. The Old East Scandinavian dialect covered Sweden and Denmark, and their related enclaves in places like Russia and Latvia. But when listing the languages of the entire Germanic family, Old Norse can refer to all the dialects of Old Scandinavian.
Very convenient indeed for students of old Germanic languages is the fact that the language of Iceland today is practically the same as what the Vikings spoke when they settled the island. Since the time of the founding of Iceland in the ninth century, most other Germanic languages have passed from "old" to "middle" and "modern" stages, each stage being essentially a different language. (In English: compare the language of, say, Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, respectively.) In the case of Iceland, however, Old Norse and modern Icelandic are considered basically the same languages, the only real differences being, to a modest degree, in pronunciation and in spelling. (E.g., the name Eric is Eirikr in Old Norse, but Eirikur in modern Icelandic.) And in my humble and limited opinion, the Vikings share with the Goths the fascinating paradox of having a (perhaps) surprisingly soft, smooth-sounding language for a comparatively aggressive historical track-record.
And the sounds of their language did not go unnoticed by the Norse themselves. More than any of their linguistic cousins, the Norse not only contributed many great works in the great Germanic poetic tradition of alliterative verse (only Old English comes close to Norse in this regard), they also did the most experimentation and variation of their inherited poetic structure. Check out these posts (Part 1 and Part 2) for more on the poetic form inherited by all the old Germanic tribes, and this blog post for more on the variations peculiar to Old Norse. With the Poetic Edda and the many works of prose (the sagas and Prose Edda), the corpus of Old Norse literature vastly outweighs the corresponding "old" stages of all the other Germanic languages put together. (Old English literature is a clear second.)
Old Norse has many unique features that distinguish it from all of its Germanic cousins. For instance, the masculine –s ending that we see on many Latin, Greek, and even Gothic nouns survives in Old Norse, but in the process it got turned into an R. (Compare the following words for 'middle': Latin medius, Gothic midjis, Old English midd, Norse miðr.)
Also, Old Norse alone exhibits a form of "sharpening", where a word like proto-Germanic trîwa gets a hard g-sound, turning it into Old Norse tryggva; contrast with Old English triw (hence modern 'true') and Old High German triu (hence modern German treu).
Finally, many words that begin with a diphthong (two vowel sounds together) like eo or ea in English (old or modern) have been made into a consonant (a y-sound) in Old Norse, and are spelled j–. Compare:
earl: OE earl, ON jarl
earth: OE eorð, ON jörð
York: OE Eorwic, ON Jorvik
Notice also that the modern pronunciation of York shows Norse influence, since it was a Norwegian kingdom for a time.
Following is a sound file demonstrating Old Norse: the Lord's Prayer, recorded by yours truly. I've recorded the same prayer in each of the old Germanic languages to make comparison easier. (I admit some modern Icelandic pronunciation may have crept in.)
The Lord's Prayer, in Icelandic
Here's the text of the prayer in Old Norse:
Faðir vor; þú sem ert á himnum. Helgist þitt nafn. Til komi þitt ríki. Verði þinn vilji, svo á jörðu sem á himni. Gef oss í dag vort daglegt brauð. Og fyrirgef oss vorar skuldir; svo sem vér og fyrirgefum vorum skuldunautum. Eigi leið þú oss í freistni, heldur frelsa oss frá illu. Amen.